The Phillips Exeter mock trial team, for which I serve as adviser, won the New Hampshire state championship this past weekend. It was an amazing experience, for the kids and for me, and I wanted to write a bit about it.
Mock trial, as the name suggests, is a form of debate in which kids play the role of lawyers or witnesses. The witnesses’ task is to be the character: in our recent trial the characters included a fire department arson investigator, a homeless woman mourning the loss of her sister killed in a fire, and a local artist accused of setting the fire that burned the building and killed the woman. The lawyers’ tasks are to question the witnesses, gently on direct to draw out the facts, harshly on cross to show the inconsistencies, and to open and close the case. Each team has to be ready to present both sides of the case.
Our A team consisted of eleven students. Stephanie Adamakos, Gene Chang, Ange Clayton, Rohan Pavuluri and Joon Yang were lawyers. Alice Ju, Shinri Kamei, Da’Rya McAllister, Emery Real Bird, Grace Song and Audrey Zheng. We also had a B team, younger students, many of them competing for the first time.
There were fourteen teams in the tournament. We started on Friday evening with one trial, had a second trial Saturday morning, and then the field was thinned to four teams for semifinals. The event was held in the new courthouse in Nashua, New Hampshire, a great plus, because it allowed the kids to compete in real courtrooms.
I did not see the Exeter A team’s trial Friday evening, but when I met up with them afterwards, the kids were tearing their hair and rending their clothes. They had presented a novel defense: we argued that the fire was set not by the defendant, Robin Banks, but by her friend, Michelle Collins, an out-of-town environmental activist. At one critical moment, we asked the girls playing Banks and Collins to stand up, and asked the other side’s witness to tell the court which was Banks, the defendant. The other team objected, saying that we were violating the rule against “costuming,” because our Banks and Collins were dressed similarly and both Asian-American girls. We lost this objection battle, and several others, and the A team felt like they lost the trial.
I also did not see the A team trial Saturday morning, but when I met them they were feeling much better. They had presented the prosecution side of the case and said that, unless they were much mistaken, they had won the trial. When we met in the atrium to hear who would advance to the semifinals, however, I was quite prepared for the tears of loss: after all, the decision would be based on scores from both trials, and the Friday evening scores could be low. Moreover, the scoring is subjective: is a witness so great she is a 10? Or good but only an 8? Or fair and only a 6? Different judges see different things, even when they see the same trial, much less in different courtrooms.
When we learned we would advance, there was about ten seconds of jumping and hugging. But then the kids realized that they had to “get back to work,” to go to the next courtroom and prepare for the next trial. I had assumed that there would be a lunch break but there was not: the next trial was going to start in minutes. Fortunately George and Julya Adamakos were with us; they were able to go out and get some food; bring it to the area outside of court where the kids. Thank you.
This third trial was against Bishop Guertin, the traditional “powerhouse” of New Hampshire mock trial. We were again presenting the prosecution; they were presenting the defense. BG was very good; their witnesses included a smooth and professional fire investigator and a perky and interesting Michelle Collins (the out-of-town environmental activist). The BG lawyers knew all the little things about moving around the court and asking permission. One area in which the Exeter lawyers were better (I thought) was objections: my kids just knew the rules better and that showed.
When the trial was over, I went with the Bishop Guertin coach to the judge’s room, where the judges totted up the scores. I thus learned, before the kids did, that Exeter had won, that it would advance to the final round. But there was a confusion in the other trial; it was initially announced that Souhegan had won that trial and then determined that Prospect Mountain had won because (although Souhegan got more points) two of the three judges sided with Prospect Mountain. My heart went out, still does, to those kids from Souhegan.
We then started the fourth and final trial, for the state championship, for the right to go to the national championship. We were up against Prospect Mountain; the same team that (per my kids) had defeated them on Friday evening. But this time the sides were reversed; we were presenting the prosecution case and they were presenting the defense. So in another sense it was NOT the same kids, because by and large each team uses different kids on the two different sides of the case.
Joon Yang opened the case for Exeter and he was great. But the Prospect Mountain kid who presented their opening argument was also great; that element of the case was a tie, I thought. As Prosecution we then presented our three witnesses: Shinri Kamei as the arson investigator; Audrey Zheng as the car executive; and Da Rya McAllister as the grieving sister Newton. They were all excellent but I have to praise Da’Rya in particular: she cried and many people in the courtroom came close to crying as she told of her love for her dead sister. Another great moment on this side was when Ange Clayton managed to prevent, through an objection, the defense from asking Newton any questions about her prior arrest. Their whole cross fell apart.
Prospect Mountain then presented their defense and it was very good: basically they argued that the defendant Banks had an alibi–she was walking around town with Collins at the time the fire was set–and that the fire was an accident–a tipped can of sterno that the Newton sisters were using. We did what we could on cross-examination, but I did not feel that we “killed” any of their witnesses. Indeed I remember one instance in which we lost a point: Rohan wanted to ask their expert questions about his qualifications in ghost hunting (listed on his resume) and the judge did not allow it.
Rohan closed for our side and he (as usual) great: passionate, articulate, strong. But the lawyer on their side was very good if not great: she restated lots of the facts and (after each bit) used a refrain: “that is reasonable doubt.”
As we were sitting waiting to hear the final result, some of the judges commented on what they had just seen. Listening to the comments, I felt sure we would lose. One of the judges did not like Joon’s necktie. One of the judges felt that Rohan was TOO intense: she said they were scared by his approach to the jury box. The judges did not seem to understand one of Rohan’s key arguments, that the alibi did not add up because the two claimed to have been walking around for five or six hours in January in New Hampshire. (No one witness said this: you had to do some math from bits of evidence from different witnesses).
The main judge returned and announced that Prospect Mountain had won second. At this point the courtroom erupted: my kids were laughing, crying, dancing, hugging one another. I do feel for the Prospect Mountain kids; they were very good and we did not, as we should have, line up to shake their hands. We stayed in the courtroom for a few minutes, taking pictures and petting the trophy, then filed out and got on the bus to come home.
Having won the state championship means that we “go on” to nationals, in New Mexico in early May. So this story is “to be continued.”